Hamburg G20 protests and alternative futures

by | 4 Sep 2017 | The Blog | 0 comments

NB This blog post was first published on openDemocracy, as part of the openmovements series.

Germany, Hamburg on 7 July 2017. Protesters rally before summit in an art performance.

On July 8, 2017, the last day of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, an estimated 76,000 people came together under the motto of ‘solidarity without borders instead of G20’ and marked the largest yet protest against G20. According to Deutsche Welle around 170 organisations had registered to participate, mainly from European and German leftist, environmentalist, peace organisations and trade unions. This mass demonstration marked an end to a week of actions ranging from a 2-day alternative summit, to various forms of protests, demonstrations and civil disobedience.

The alternative summit was modelled on the World Social Forums, with multiple plenaries and workshops during which global problems such as poverty, exploitation, oppression, war and the destruction of nature, their linkages and possible alternatives were discussed. The demonstrations included performance artists covering themselves in grey crusty clay moving silently through the city, demonstrations on boats creating a sea of banners, a G20 not welcome demonstration, and an education demonstration. Some groups embraced a number of different disruptive strategies to block access to various meeting sites. Also, some anarchist groups targeted shops, buildings and cars, leading to violent confrontation with the police.

The massive opposition to G20 during its meeting in Hamburg reflected the broad and diverse base of hostility to the 20 major economies whose policies determine lives of millions of people. It sent a clear rejection to those whose involvement in economic policies, wars, terrorism, displacement of refugees and climate catastrophes is undeniable. Moreover, the scale of the protests and the violent and disruptive direction they took at times demonstrated once again the capacity of the grassroots to show discontent beyond the boundaries of tolerated limits: it challenged the mainstream and putative forms of state-protest relationship. German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the riots stating that ‘those who act in this way are not interested in voicing political criticism or in a better life for the people of this world’ while praising the many peaceful protesters for putting pressure on world leaders.

Earlier large-scale protests against the political and economic elite and global economic institutions such as the WTO reflected a clear opposition to neoliberal globalisation, and Hamburg’s protests remained anti-capitalist in their master frame while economic disparities, climate change and the refugee crisis were raised as the most important issues. Brexit and Trump’s election, as symbols of disintegration/de-globalisation were not really reflected in the protest, and the groups that did condemn Trump linked their discontent to his ‘fascist’ and ‘nationalist’ tendencies. The many existing disagreements among world leaders, particularly with Trump on Paris Climate Agreement, were also not addressed.

The major slogan of the protests was ‘No G20’ but there was neither a clear proposal among the protesters about whether G20 should be reformed or abolished nor was there a clear alternative proposal to it. Although the alternative summit or Global Solidarity Summit’s main objective was to discuss ‘strategies to realize a solidarity-oriented world’, none of the strategies discussed during the summit were reflected in the protests. Moreover, the alternatives and counter-institutions that have been developed over the years did not find their way into the protests either. The protests captured huge media attention, but it was the disruptive and violent nature of the protests which made headlines rather than the scale, variety and demands of the protests.

On July 2, the day which marked the first anti-G20 actions, the Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat warned that although alternative summits, mass protests, demonstrations and civil disobedience have a function, they are not enough to seriously challenge G20 and the power structure it represents. He suggested we need ‘a clear idea of what we want our world to be’ in a post G20 world. However, in recent years the articulation of clear visions towards alternative futures emerged particularly during and in the aftermath of the 2011 wave of uprisings that gained the attention of scholars, activists, sympathisers of these movements and at times, ordinary people. In social movement studies, the concept of ‘prefigurative politics’ exclusively engages with theoretical and empirical visons of building future-oriented alternatives. One example of such literature is Erik Olin Wright’s ground-breaking book Envisioning Real Utopias where he discusses the emancipatory potential of what he calls real utopian projects as alternatives to existing structures of power and inequality.

The idea is to focus on the creation and elaboration of ‘workable institutional principles that could inform emancipatory alternatives to the existing world.’ The book provides grounding for radical transformative visions of an alternative social world. It presents cases of institutional innovations such as participatory city budgeting, unconditional basic income and worker-owned cooperatives. Multiple examples of social and/or solidarity economies, radical municipal strategies and ecological communities such as eco-villages are only a few examples of already existing political alternatives to capitalist structures and institutions which have been developed during recent years. The argument I would like to make in this article is that these future oriented innovations should gradually find their way into our mass protests. There is an inherent political significance in a protest event due to the large number of participants and mass media coverage which facilitates the spread of information, political ideas and strategies to sympathisers and larger publics. Through direct interaction with bystanders observing the protest event, protesters can deliver different interpretations of the demonstration that diverge from accounts in the mass media. This can influence the ways the general public and bystanders perceive the protests and interpret its media coverage.

During the Arab Spring, Indignados and Occupy mobilizations, activists created and practiced mini-models of alternative societies, with a clear division of labour and transparent democratic practices. These strategies and practices were gradually diffused and gained the attention of public and media and started to be discussed among the sympathisers. While in an event such as a mass protest we cannot possibly build similar models, these occasions could be turned into demonstration sites of counter institutions, proposals and practices.

Much time has passed since the alter-globalisation activists summarised the objective of creating an alternative social, political and economic system with the slogan ‘another world is possible’. In this period of political crisis, more than ever, we need to show how this other world could be possible and how would it look. And to spread the message, we could use protest events as sites of demonstrating progressive and practical political strategies for alternative futures. No mainstream media is present in our alter summits, meetings or conferences where we discuss alternatives and solutions; neither are they present when we challenge the system through prefigurative politics and involvement in alternative counter-institutions and practices. However, major protest events provide a valuable platform to publicize our alternatives and raise clear practical demands to the current structures and institutions.

More long speeches

The anti-G20 mass demonstration was impressive in terms of scale but disappointing in terms of content. It started with many long speeches condemning G20 and capitalism and ended with similar speeches. Neither did many people listen to these speeches nor have access to them as reported in any news coverage or other media. The end of the demonstration became very celebratory, with music, food and drink. Despite the presence of numerous groups and organisations who had come from all over Germany and Europe and despite the passion and energy felt during the demonstration, one rarely caught sight or sound of a slogan, speech, banner or pamphlet proposing a solution to any of the problems addressed or an alternative to the status quo.

Interestingly a few far-left organisations were clearly suggesting ‘communism’ on their banners and pamphlets and in slogans and songs. These groups were heavily surrounded by the police and each time they chanted ‘Anti-Capitalista’ or ‘One Solution Revolution’ the police reacted anxiously and kettled the protest. Despite the considerable respect I have for such far left groups who in this period of a crisis of political imagination and uncertainty provide the blueprint of a different world, I doubt that after the collapse of the socialist block many people will identify with communism as a solution or see revolution as a viable political strategy.

It would have been great to use the anti-G20 protest to show how another world is possible. In this period of rising political crisis where progressive parties and leaders are systematically sabotaged, in the era of Trump and a general far-right upsurge, presenting new understandings of possible visions for the future has become urgent. We must use any major event, such as a protest event, as an opportunity to advance concrete strategies that are based upon promoting the expansion of counter-institutions and social solidarity and we must show how different types of political strategy can open up new horizons on different scales. This is important not only because there is an intrinsic merit in actually presenting how another world could be possible, but because of the effects it will have on the composition of protest events, social movements and their imagined progressive and alternative futures.


Simin FadaeeSimin Fadaee

I am a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester. Theoretically my research is situated in debates surrounding the Northern-centric essence of sociology, and the extent to which theories, concepts and practices can travel across the North-South divide. My empirical focus is broadly on political sociology, social movements, revolutions and social justice.